Judge blocks Sweet Briar from selling off assets for six months

Debbie Sackman confronts Interim President Jones after the hearing. Photo: Hawes Spencer Debbie Sackman confronts Interim President Jones after the hearing. Photo: Hawes Spencer

An Amherst County judge ruled Wednesday that Sweet Briar, whose board wants to close the women’s college, may not sell any assets for six months. The move provided a partial win in a student-based lawsuit to halt the closing, but the plaintiffs said there was cause to celebrate.

“This was a huge victory,” said attorney Elliott Schuchardt, who represents the students suing, “because it means the student community has access to the courts, and the courts are listening.”

Judge James Updike, hearing the case in a borrowed Bedford County courtroom, used terms like “unilateral” and “arbitrary” to describe closing a 114-year-old school where hundreds of students were expecting to earn diplomas.

“There’s a basis for finding this ain’t right,” said Updike.

He refrained, however, from providing the more sweeping relief the plaintiffs sought, an order keeping the College open. And the defense, in a brief prepared statement, hailed the judge for noting that the College needs cash.

Debbie Sackman has cash concerns. After the ruling, this mother of a Sweet Briar student who isn’t party to the suit strode past the courtroom divider to confront interim president James Jones.

“I hope you sleep well tonight,” said Sackman, contending that relaunching her daughter’s dual major will cost $78,000.

Even though he’s married to a Sweet Briar alumna, Jones has become a focal point for ire over the closing. Critics point to his accelerated departure from his prior college presidency amid allegations of improper use of donated funds and his public claim that Sweet Briar’s survival requires more than doubling the endowment to $250 million.

On Wednesday, his testimony professing ignorance of how much money the college needs or where its biggest fund could be spent prompted the plaintiffs’ attorney to brand him “extremely evasive.”

Woody Fowler, lawyer for the college, scoffed at aspects of Schuchart’s case, which included questions hinting that the board chairman might profit from the sale of the 3,250-acre campus.

“Plaintiff counsel’s willingness to engage in rumor-mongering and engage in factual inaccuracies,” said Fowler, “is astounding.”

The rumor mill may flourish in part because the College has chosen not to unveil its deliberations about the closing, and a reporter’s efforts to interview board members has been uniformly met with refusals.

College spokesperson Christy Jackson declines to provide the minutes of board meetings or even a copy of the body’s bylaws. She did say, via prepared statement, that the College shares the judge’s concern that money could run out.

“The only thing that can save the College would be a truly substantial infusion of funds,” Jackson wrote.

This student-centered lawsuit becomes the second heard by Judge Updike. The first, filed by the Amherst County Attorney, resulted in a 60-day ban on spending donated funds for the closing as well as an appeal, filed Wednesday, seeking wider relief from the Virginia Supreme Court. A third lawsuit, filed by faculty, has yet to be heard.

Schuchardt says he won’t wait for the other two suits but instead plans to quickly launch into the discovery process in hopes of gaining a permanent injunction.

“I remain optimistic,” says Schuchardt. “This place can be saved, and it can be done through this lawsuit.”